Left in agony for over a year, the family of 22-year-old Jose Hernandez-Portillo now knows more about his death, but are still trying to grasp how it happened.
“We are a very united, hard-working family. He was well-loved. From what we know, he wasn’t involved in things he shouldn’t be, like gangs,” said a family member, who spoke to The Capital on the condition that she would not be identified because of fear for her safety.
Anne Arundel County police and the FBI are investigating the death of Hernandez-Portillo, who police say was killed in a gang-related attack in 2016 and buried in a secret grave in Quiet Waters Park near Annapolis.
His body was discovered in August, but it took months for police to publicly identify him. He was one of three homicides cited by county police Chief Timothy Altomare in an Oct. 6 news conference warning of a rising danger of gang violence.
Hernandez-Portillo is the second Hispanic person killed and buried in a wooded area of Annapolis in what police say is a result of gang violence. Jennifer B. Rivera Lopez was discovered in a hidden grave in Crownsville in August, two months after she disappeared from her Annapolis home.
“The manner in which Mr. Portillo was killed is consistent with gang-related killings that have occurred throughout the region. This consistency has led investigators to believe his death is gang-related,” police spokesman Lt. Ryan Frashure said Friday.
Anne Arundel police have not publicly identified the gang they suspect is involved, but other law enforcement officials have said Rivera Lopez’s death bore the hallmarks of a murder by MS-13, a violent gang that preys on immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Two other young Annapolis residents have also been reported missing. Neris Bonilla-Palacios, 17, was last seen Aug. 5, and Felipe Rivera, 16, disappeared Aug. 29.
Anne Arundel police have refused to identify the third homicide victim Altomare mentioned earlier this month. Rivera’s family has said they fear he is dead.
Almost two months before Hernandez-Portillo’s disappearance, his family received threats through online messages via Facebook.
Hernandez-Portillo’s sister said the family reported the threats to Fairfax County police in Virginia, where Hernandez-Portillo had been staying for a short time. But she said they received little help.
“I gave them the threats that I had received online — I gave them proof and they didn’t help. They just told me to be aware of my surroundings, don’t answer the door to strangers and if anything happens to call 911,” she said.
A spokesman for Fairfax County police could not be reached for comment.
Hernandez-Portillo was reported missing to Anne Arundel County police on March 13, 2016. Just a day before his family filed the report, police recovered a cellphone with a small amount of his blood on it in Quiet Waters Park.
For the next two days, officers, detectives and six search teams canvassed the park for Hernandez-Portillo but were unsuccessful.
An anonymous tip led police to find Hernandez-Portillo’s body buried in the park more than a year later. Police said when they discovered his body, it appeared he had been buried for a long period of time.
About two hours after county police identified Hernandez-Portillo as the victim of a gang-related homicide Thursday, they released a video in Spanish about gangs on their Facebook page.
The video features county police Cpl. Steve Almendarez, one of the department’s Latino liaison officers, speaking in Spanish urging people to call police if they feel threatened or see anything suspicious.
Hernandez-Portillo’s family has set up a GoFundMe page asking for help in raising funds to have Hernandez-Portillo’s remains sent to his mother in Honduras for burial.
“I don’t have any words for the moment. This is something so hard for me because they’ve taken away my brother,” Hernandez-Portillo’s sister said. “He was very close to me and he’s never coming back.”
Police have not said whether someone has been charged in Hernandez-Portillo’s death.
Five people have been charged in the beating death of Rivera Lopez, a former student at Annapolis High School.
A current student and former student at the school were among those charged with first-degree murder.
Ronald Adonay Mendez-Sosa was a student during the 2013-2014 school year and a student at the evening high school in April 2016.
Ervin Arrue-Figuero, also charged in the death of Rivera Lopez, was a current student of Annapolis High until he was arrested in her death in late September.
Bob Mosier, spokesman for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, said school representatives have met with both city and county police on gang activity, but have not notified parents about the involvement of current and former students in the violence.
“We’re not going to do anything to compromise the integrity of any investigation that police are undertaking. These are evolving issues and we view our responsibility to be supportive of students and law enforcement,” Mosier said.
School officials have often brought counselors and school psychologists into schools in the wake of dramatic events, such as the death of a student. Mosier said that hasn’t happened at Annapolis.
“The school, office of school counseling and student support services have had an ongoing discussion on whether to bring in outside counselors or psychologists, but at the moment we have not felt the need to,” Frashure said.
There are permanent counselors available to students at all county schools to discuss any type of issue.
The Annapolis Police Department has teamed up with Annapolis Middle School to host a second community meeting in Spanish at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 5, said Joe Hudson, the department’s Hispanic liaison.